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Parents key in protecting children online

Despite improved security features designed to help protect children on social networking sites, Internet safety experts say there will always be flaws.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Despite improved security features designed to help protect children on social networking sites, Internet safety experts say there will always be flaws, and that's why much of the responsibility to protect children falls on parents.

"No security system is perfect, just as a driver's license is never fool proof," said Jay Chaudhuri, special counsel to North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, who led a national push to get sites like Myspace and Facebook to increase security.

Evidence of the systems' imperfections are clear after Cary police arrested Dakota Walter Lee Melton, 21, and charged him with taking indecent liberties with a 12-year-old Sanford boy.

Investigators won't talk about the case, but search warrants indicate Melton allegedly met the boy online through Myspace, chatted with him, picked him up and brought him to Cary. Police are still investigating.

"Predators, they groom and so develop these relationships over a long period of time, and they're grooming multiple children at a time," Chaudhuri said. "Social networking sites allow them to do this very easily."

Last May, Myspace took down 29,000 pages while implementing a block list of known sexual offenders.

That's actually an easy thing to do but doesn't help that much, says Linda Criddle, president of Look Both Ways, a consultant company that works to educate parents and children on the dangers of the Internet.

"What isn't said is that most sexual predators have never been arrested or convicted, so most sexual predator won't be blocked by that lack of technology to filter," she said.

Criddle says communication and clear expectations defined between both parents and their children is one of the most effective ways to help children safe.

"One of the worst things that parents do is set up an oppositional environment," she said. "Parental control is such a negative phrase. No kid wants to be controlled."

For example, she advises parents to explain to children the reasons behind their actions and offer specific examples of the consequences of communicating with strangers.

"If, instead, you say, let's have a collaborative environment – this is why we're doing this, because you don't want to be ripped off, hurt, scammed, or put our home at risk of being robbed – then, you can start having a collaborative experience that can help teach things."

It's also important to look at the emotional risk factors a child might have to know when to put extra controls in place. Children between ages 12 and 15 are the most vulnerable to sexual predators, Criddle says.

"That's when kids start to reach out. You know, 'I understand my family circle and values and friends, now I want to meet new people.'"

But Criddle said there is a category of social networking where children can have a positive experience, with some limitations.

For example, she advises parents to:

  • Research and use the Internet and understand what their children do online. "You do not have to be some kind of 'tech-spert' in order to help your kids be safe online."
  • Set clear rules on what type of information can be posted – nothing of a private nature should go on there.
  • Set profiles to private, and allow only people that both parents and children feel comfortable with seeing information.
  • Refrain from allowing children to inviting new friends to join their site.
  • Realize that even if a page is private, it's not really private.
"On Myspace, in particular, when a child sets their site to be private, their photo still displays. Their name still displays, their location, their age, and any quote they have still displays," Criddle said. "With all that information, it's not private. Myspace has intentionally exposed them with considerable risk."

Last year, Cooper led the charge to get social sites to add extensive measures to combat sexual predators and helped launch a national Internet Safety Task Force of leading technology companies and social networking sites working to develop age and identity verification tools to help better protect children.

A report is due by the end of the year.